Chapter 1: The Letter
In ninety-five out of a hundred, the first magical manifestation of power happens by the age of thirteen. — Emerging Wizardry, Volume 91, Issue 6
Kanéko had seen the expression on the new postal carrier’s face before. It was the same look of surprise and disgust almost every stranger revealed in the seconds after first meeting her. When her father was present, adults would have the civility to at least mask their expressions once they regained control of their senses. When it was just her, adults rarely bothered hiding their true feelings.
Sheepishly, she lowered her hand and hid it behind her back. She knew that it wouldn’t erase the sight of her dark skin or green eyes, but there wasn’t anything else she could do. Her mother said Kanéko was the color of farming soil mixed with desert rust, and in a land of pale-skinned folk, there was no hiding that heritage.
“Back off,” snapped the courier. He clutched the bundle of letters tight to his chest.
Kanéko glanced at the papers and envelopes in his arms. The top one held the seal of the Royal Academy of Knights. Her heart beat faster. She had been waiting weeks for it to arrive and she couldn’t wait to read it. Despite the courier’s expression, she decided to try again. “I-I can take them. It’s okay. I’m Bartim Lurkuklan’s daughter.”
His lip curled further, and she could see his teeth. He stepped back and lowered one hand to his sword. A few letters spilled out and fluttered to the ground. “Back off,” he repeated before looking around for someone.
Kanéko glanced over her shoulder so she could prove her own legitimacy. The nearest building, Jinmel’s smithy, was empty. Next to it, the village’s only store was shut tightly. The half dozen houses lining the road leading up to the gate were also quiet. Everyone would be at lunch at the great hall. The gate itself had one of its two doors held open with an old cart. Missing wheels and waist-high grass were both a silent comment of how long it had been since someone had last closed the heavy doors.
She gestured toward the keep. The copper embroidery on her sleeve matched her hair and sparkled in the sun. “Come on, I’ll take you to my father.”
The postal carrier stepped back. His sword inched out of the sheath. “I said back away, sandy! And go back to shit-hole of a desert where you can from!”
Kanéko couldn’t find the words to tell him she was only desert on her mother’s side. He wouldn’t believe that she had never left her father’s lands, much less had ever seen the vast Mifuno Desert.
“Please,” she said as calmly as she could. “I’ll take you to the others.”
The carrier pulled out his sword with a scrape of metal. It was a short sword, plain but serviceable. On the hilt, she could see the crest of Kormar underneath his palm. He stepped back and waved the blade menacingly at her. “I said back!”
She cringed, worried that he would lunge forward and cut her.
“What is going on?” asked Jinmel as he came around the back side of his smithy.
At the sight of the older man with gray frizzy hair, both Kanéko and the carrier let out sighs of relief.
“This thief,” the postal carrier gestured at Kanéko with his sword tip, “tried to steal the mail.”
Kanéko flinched again, her eyes locked on the tip of the weapon.
Jinmel smiled broadly at the courier. “You’re new, aren’t you?” His voice was tense and didn’t match his smile. His wrinkled hand tightened around the haft of a short hammer in his palm.
“Yes, so? Who are you?”
“Jinmel Sandor. That’s my smithy right behind you.” He pointed to the anvil which had his name embossed on it. Then he held out his free hand for the mail.
The postal carrier chuckled as he handed the bundle of letters to Jinmel and then glared at Kanéko. “Sorry. I’ve never had someone try to rob me before.”
Kanéko tore her eyes away from the sword and followed the top envelope. The man’s insult stung, but she wanted the letter more.
“You haven’t been robbed,” muttered Jinmel. “She’s an unarmed girl.”
As soon as Jinmel had a firm grip on the letters, she rushed over and snatched the Academy envelope. He relaxed his grip to let her pull it free.
The carrier grunted and reached out but stopped at Jinmel’s sharp look and raised hammer.
She spun around and stared at the thin letter. It was sealed with the imprint of the Royal Academy in Jinto Panzir, the same school where her father had learned combat magic. She hoped it would be addressed to her so she could open it, but it wasn’t.
Her heart pounded in her chest. After weeks of waiting for the results, she would finally know what magical talent she had and how powerful she would become. If she followed her father’s heritage, she would be able to manipulate stone, but a small part of her still dreamed that she would manifest one of the rarer talents such as folding space or healing.
With a giggle, she spun on her bare feet and rushed toward the gate.
“Kan!” Jinmel stopped her.
With a huff, she turned back around.
He held out the rest of the mail. “To your father and the others. They are at lunch.”
Next to Jinmel, the postal carrier blanched. “Y-You mean, she really is…?”
“The Bartim Lurkuklan’s daughter? Yes.”
“But… but, she’s…”
“A girl? You’re right.” Jinmel’s eyes sparkled as he grinned. “She’s thirteen, actually. Almost not a girl.”
Kanéko blushed as she took the rest of the mail, tucking it underneath her arm but keeping the academy letter in her grip.
“No, she’s sand.” The man gestured to Kanéko with a curt wave. “The bartim is…”
Kanéko tensed as she waited for the insult.
Jinmel sighed, shook his head, and gestured for Kanéko to continue. Turning around, he spoke to the man. “Yes, and I’m glad you noticed that. Because if you insult her like that in front of her father, he’s just going to beat you into the ground and have you fired. Her mother, who is from the desert, would use your intestines for her bow. In fact—”
Kanéko didn’t want to hear the rest of the lecture. Spinning back, she ran through the gate and across the courtyard.
The bartim’s keep consisted of a stone wall thrice her height and a four-story tower in the center. Around the inside of the wall were various buildings including stables with a well but no horses, the armory, kitchens, and the great hall. Everything was made of stone bricks shaped by her father’s magic.
She yanked open the great hall door and yelled over the sudden din. “Papa! Papa!”
The great hall was packed for the lunch crowds, a hundred people laughing and cheering and eating. Most of them listened to a story Kanéko’s father was telling. She could hear him speak from on top of the table at the far end of the room.
Her father, Ronamar, held a turkey leg in one hand like a sword and a stone mug in the other. Compared to the rest of the villagers, he was a mountain of a man, tall and broad. His short hair was brown with streaks of gray, and he had a few scars on his face and arms, but otherwise he was as fit as the day he retired from the army.
Heart pounding, she rushed through the crowds waving the letter. “It came!”
Ronamar crouched down, looming over her. “What came? Oh!” He smiled. “Is it the bid for you? I’m going to sell you. I might even get a few dozen crowns.”
Kanéko rolled her eyes and giggled. “No, Papa, the letter from the Academy. It came!”
A hush rolled through the great hall.
“Open it!” She shoved it into his chest.
“Fine, fine,” grumbled her father as he dropped the turkey leg on his plate. It bounced off and fell to the floor. One of the dogs grabbed it and retreated back to the shadows.
Ronamar wiped his hand off and knelt to set the mug down with more grace. He took the letter from her hand, his tanned, thick fingers dwarfing her own, and tugged it free. With a grunt, he straightened before dramatically tearing the end off the envelope to pull the letter out.
Taking a deep breath, he began to read. “To Bartim Ronamar Lurkuklan, Fourth Circle Knight of Kormar, Hero of Dove’s Peak, Mage-Knight of the…” he trailed off for a moment. “Hold on, I’m just getting through my accomplishments.”
“There’s a lot of them,” he said with a chuckle and puffing out his chest.
Laughter bubbled up across the room.
Kanéko hopped as she watched him read silently.
Her father held up his finger. “Almost done.”
The corner of his lip curled up. “Almost…”
“Papa!” Kanéko was smiling as she stamped her foot down.
“Fine,” he rolled his eyes. “Thank you for… blah, blah, kissing my balls…”
From behind her, someone spoke up. “I hope she has fire magic.”
“I’m voting for water.”
“A round of stout says she has plant magic.”
“You just don’t want to farm anymore.”
Ronamar looked out over the gathered people. “It’s going to be earth or stone, so shut up.” He winked at Kanéko.
She tapped the table impatiently. When he didn’t immediately resume, she pulled out a bench to crawl up and get to the letter to read it herself.
Before she could, a hand pulled her back. She glanced down. At the sight of her mother’s fingers, so brown they were almost black, she relaxed.
Mioráshi was shorter than her daughter by a full hand, but where Kanéko had the softness of a teenage girl, Mioráshi was compact, lithe, and scarred from years of battle. Her curly hair was cropped close to her head and she had intense green eyes that pinned Kanéko in place. “Slow down, imapatsu daughter.” Her mother spoke two languages but alternated between the two constantly. Kanéko knew Lorban, the language of the country, but only knew a few words of Miwāfu, the desert tongue.
Straining not to jump up and down, Kanéko rested her hand on her mother’s. “I hope it’s earth,” she whispered.
Ronamar chuckled and returned to the letter. “Let’s see… thank you for giving me the opportunity to examine your daughter…” He looked at her and winked again. “I think he means, thank you for giving us a huge amount of money to test your daughter because she’s two years late manifesting her powers.”
“Papa!” Kanéko blushed and shook with anticipation.
He returned to the letter. “Because of aberrations… verified with three separate…” A frown crossed his face. His lips worked silently for a moment.
The room grew even quieter.
His shoulders suddenly slumped and the smile dropped from his face. It was as if all the joy had been sucked out of him by the words on the page. Kanéko could almost feel the temperature lowering around her and the ground quivering underneath her bare feet.
Kanéko’s skin crawled. “P-Papa?”
Ronamar snarled. He crushed the letter and dropped it on the table. When it hit, Kanéko jerked as if he struck her. He jumped off the table and strode past her and toward the door. “Everyone back to work,” he announced.
No one moved as he stormed out.
Kanéko’s lip trembled as she reached out for him. “P-Papa?”
The crinkle of paper startled her. She turned to see her mother unfolding the letter.
“What does it say?” asked someone in a quiet voice.
Mioráshi read the letter to the room, her voice shrill in the silence. “We regret to inform you that your daughter has no capability of manipulating magic. We therefore withdraw her application to the Royal Academy of Knights and will no longer consider her, or any of her offspring, for automatic acceptance.”
The world stopped for one painful moment. Kanéko felt her heart skip a beat as tears burned in her eyes. “H-How? Everyone has magic. Everyone.” Her voice sounded broken and afraid, tiny in the deathly still of the great hall.
She turned to look at the rest of the crowd. No one was looking at her. They were staring at the floor, packing up, or simply leaving. A sob rose in her throat and she turned back to her mother. “M-Mama?”
Mioráshi’s eyes flashed as a growl rose in her throat. "Gachímo the bastards." Her mother continued to swear in Miwāfu as she pulled Kanéko into a tight hug.
Kanéko sobbed into her shoulder. “Why don’t I have magic? It isn’t possible, is it?”